Courting disaster

The attention of the country, or at least that part of it not yet entirely alienated from the political process, focused this morning on the Supreme Court, which convened to hear the thorny case of Johnson v Democracy.

Of course the government would prefer us to view the divide as The People v The Establishment, with Johnson identifying himself as the champion of the former. He has abandoned the pretence that the suspension of parliament was not intended to suppress opposition, and is instead defending it as a legitimate political manoeuvre which the courts have no business interfering with.

This is probably a smart strategy; if the justices decide in his favour he can claim vindication, while if they rule against him it will only burnish his populist reputation.

My prediction, for what it’s worth, is that the judges will decline to overrule the executive, which will give Johnson the confidence to ignore the law compelling him to delay Brexit.

It’s looking more likely that any election will come after we’re out of the EU, and you’d have to fancy Johnson’s chances in that scenario. I’ve been swinging between hope and despair on this issue for the past few months, but the latter emotion is definitely predominant right now.

Judicial discomfort

On the face of it, today’s court ruling declaring that the government had acted unlawfully in suspending Parliament is a bit of a personal disaster for Boris Johnson, as it sees him labelled by senior judges as a liar who has misled no less a personage than the Queen herself.

While this is clearly embarrassing for a Conservative Prime Minister, Johnson may not be too dismayed. There is a good chance that the Supreme Court will overturn the ruling next week, freeing him from the obligation to submit to troublesome parliamentary scrutiny, and the whole thing plays into his preferred narrative, in which he is a champion of the People, standing up to out-of-touch elites.

More problematic may be the release of the government’s own forecast of the potential outcome of a no-deal scenario, which makes pretty grim reading.

The degree to which any of this will change sentiment in the country at large remains to be seen though. My suspicion is that it will only encourage people to either dig themselves further into their entrenched positions, or confirm them in their alienation. I guess we’ll find out when the general election eventually comes, assuming Johnson doesn’t just abolish democracy altogether in the meantime.

Have Bong – Will Travel

It’s been a few years since we last posted a 4/20 piece, and in that time things have certainly been looking brighter for fans of the noble weed, thanks largely to the good citizens of Uruguay, Washington and Colorado.

Marijuana has been on sale in the Centennial State for nearly four months now, and, contrary to the predictions of the prohibitionists, it has yet to descend into a orgy of drug-fuelled madness. Add in the fact that the tills have been ringing pretty much non-stop since the start of January and the pro-legalisation case begins to look unanswerable. Sure, the federal government still officially frowns on the trade, but they have agreed to turn a blind eye to banks doing business with dope dealers, suggesting that they know that legal pot is here to stay.

Or there to stay at least; sadly there is no sign that progressive change in the drug laws will be happening in this country any time soon. I guess I’ll just have to pack my bags and plan a trip to the Mile-High City

It’s Summertime

Readers may have noticed that we’ve gone into our summer recess a little early this year. This is mainly because I am easily distracted by fair-weather pursuits like getting stoned and lying in the park, but also because I have a couple of other projects on the go at the moment that have seduced me away from the virtual world.

So, in lieu of actually writing a proper post, I’ll link to some topics that I would have covered in more depth in the last couple of weeks if I weren’t such a slacker.

In the wake of the Ryan Giggs super injunction fiasco, the attorney general for England and Wales has warned Twitter users that they could face legal action if they breach privacy orders. This may sound like an empty threat, since most Tweeters, myself included, are outside the jurisdiction of the English courts, but I suspect that the authorities may try to restore respect for the law by launching some selective prosecutions, especially now that Twitter have shown a willingness to hand over user details without much resistance. (To be fair to Twitter, their TOS have always made it clear that they will rat you out if the Man comes calling). It’s another reason to believe that social media is perhaps not the unstoppable force for change that its most vocal advocates would have us believe.

On a related subject, the BBC have just finished screening All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, a trio of documentaries by Adam Curtis critically examining the effect that computers and their associated ideology have had on popular consciousness. It’s excellent stuff; if you’re quick you might catch it on the iPlayer, otherwise look out for a repeat.

And finally, as we’ve noted before, proof that our municipalities are woefully unprepared for zombie attack.

The holidays are looming, so that might be your lot until July, unless it rains a lot.

The (Un)Freed Weed

This time last year we were celebrating International Marijuana Day and looking forward to political developments on both sides of the Atlantic that promised a brighter future for aficionados of the noble weed. Sadly, our hopes turned out to be as insubstantial as smoke in the breeze; in the UK the Liberals did end up in government, but have, as yet, failed to rationalise the drug laws, while in California Proposition 19 fell agonisingly short of success.

So, another year of furtiveness beckons. I guess the habit might lose some of its outlaw charm if it was legalised, but a more relaxed approach would reduce the risk of burning out.

Zoned out

We’ve not had much in the way of Second Life content recently; for one reason or another I’ve not had time to log on to the grid in ages, and I’ve just been glancing at the SL blogosphere in passing.

So what’s been happening? Let’s see… The main action seems to have been the Redzone imbroglio (actually an old story, which came to a head this month for some reason). Playing on the characteristic paranoia and narcissism of SL residents, virtual entrepreneur zFire Xue scared people with stories of how their “security” was under threat from some shadowy villains. In the real world Xue would be a political demagogue, but, this being the free-market utopia of Second Life he instead cashed in by selling an expensive technological “solution” to the “problem”. There was a backlash of course, ironically driven by the same paranoia Xue had exploited in the first place, and the Lindens belatedly lumbered into action to ban Xue and his system from the grid, though apparently without closing the loophole he was using to violate residents’ privacy.

Paranoia, narcissism, management incompetence… good to see that not much has changed in Second Life in my absence.

I’m not sure that this episode tells us anything about the psychology of SL residents that we didn’t know already after the events of “Emeraldgate“, but it does add weight the general impression that Linden Lab are not a serious company. Do they have a corporate risk-management department? Do they employ lawyers? Do they read the newspapers? If so, how did they miss that Xue’s system clearly breached EU data protection law, and that the Lab, as platform hosts, were placing themselves at risk of prosecution for failing to safeguard their customers’ information? They may have calculated that the risk was minimal, but, with practically no upside in letting Xue continue to operate, why take a chance? The situation called for decisive action, not months of dithering followed by a half-baked intervention. If I was a potential investor I wouldn’t be particularly impressed.

They’re living on nuts and berries

We haven’t had a good Second Life legal story for a while, so I was glad to see that virtual litigation is alive and well, though this time around the action involves residents suing each other rather than targeting Linden Lab.

The case revolves, as far as I can tell, around an attempt by Ozimals (of virtual bunny fame) to claim sole rights to the whole concept of Second Life pets. Expert opinion, or the SL-blog commentariat at least, seems to believe that the suit has no merit, since the original idea is clearly ripped-off from whoever invented Tamagotchi.

I don’t know about that, but if Ozimals do win their case I’m going to get myself a lawyer and go after them, since I reckon I have a good claim to have invented the Second Life animal-nurturing concept way back in 2007 – here’s the blog post to prove it (and an appropriate soundtrack).

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

Accountant Paul Chambers was back in the news this week, after he lost his appeal against a conviction for sending a “menacing message”, specifically an ill-advised tweet in which he humorously threatened to blow up Robin Hood Airport in Nottingham. The case has prompted a flurry of indignation around the Twittersphere, with supporters complaining about censorship, and rallying to show solidarity by retweeting Chambers’ offending message.

I’m not sure how to feel about this issue. I’m all for freedom of speech, but I’m finding it hard to get too outraged about this limitation of my liberty to issue prank terroristic threats on the internet.

It reminds me of how, back in the old days, when one was standing in line at the airport, one would occasionally hear some wise-guy “joke” with the security staff with some variant of “Don’t look in there mate, that’s where the bomb is, ha ha”, which would be met with an icy smile, but no further action. Then, after 9/11, these irritating but otherwise harmless jackasses started getting hauled off to jail, and pretty soon that brand of humour disappeared. It’s difficult to say that the world is a poorer place for its passing.

That said, I guess on balance my sympathy is with Chambers, since I think that momentary stupidity, while clearly regrettable, shouldn’t actually be against the law. His faux pas is another illustration of how social media are blurring the distinction between public and private in ways that can have unexpected results. What’s passably funny when recounted to one’s immediate circle may be less amusing when it is relayed to the whole world.

I expect that, as immersion in electronic social networks becomes the norm, people will develop a keener sense of what to share and what to keep to themselves. The law will probably take longer to catch up though, so I’m going to make sure that all my tweets remain thoroughly anodyne, and not susceptible to any misinterpretation whatsoever – certainly nothing that’s too near the bone.

Revolutionary Litigation

Tateru Nino at Massively is reporting that the Lindens are facing yet another lawsuit, this one accusing the Lab of fraudulently representing the nature of property relations in Second Life by suggesting that ownership of virtual land and objects rested with users, when in fact everything on the grid, in the final analysis, belongs to the Lindens (as is made clear in the newly-revised Terms of Service). The plantiffs allege that they have been expropriated without due process, contrary to the provisions of Californian Law, and have hired a lawyer with experience of virtual-world litigation to argue their case.

This case is, in effect, an attempt to impose capitalist social relations on the feudal landscape of Second Life. We have of course been advocating this for a while, though what we had in mind was an indigenous revolution rather than inviting a foreign power (in this case the State of California) to invade and reform the system by force.

O Superman

The JLU saga rumbles on, and has jumped from Second Life into the real world, on the way losing much of its lustre.

I may have exaggerated a little when I implied that the wannabe superheroes were some sort of virtual Freikorps, but they do seem to be doing their best to make themselves look like a thoroughly sinister outfit. Their latest stunt is to try to censor the Herald’s expos√© of the secret JLU database by threatening the paper’s web host with the DMCA. The Herald, to their credit, are not taking this lying down, and have counter-filed a complaint charging JLU supremo Kalel Venkman with intentionally lodging a false DMCA report, which, I understand, is not a trivial offence.

(A side-effect of this process has been to reveal the real-life identity of Herald editor Pixeleen Mistral, who, rather impressively, turns out to be internet legend Mark McCahill.)

The whole story was quite fun when it was confined to the grid and the SL blogosphere, but I suspect it is about to become rather less amusing for the participants now that everyone is getting lawyered-up. A well-connected academic like McCahill can probably look after himself – I’m sure he’ll be able to hit up Lawrence Lessig for some free legal advice – but Venkman, who, the internet tells me, is really a technical writer from Los Angeles, may be having second thoughts about the potentially expensive escalation of hostilities that he has initiated.

Why has Venkman done this? He had a perfectly good role-playing scenario set up, with heroes and villains, intrigue and espionage, skulduggery and back-stabbing, confidential dossiers and secret deals, topped off with open conflict between the forces of good and evil across hundreds of worlds – all the ingredients for a gripping narrative, with Venkman himself right at the centre. He’s trading that for a dull tale of dreary lawyers exchanging dismal arguments in dusty courtrooms, a story that seems likely to end in unhappiness for Venkman and his lycra-clad cohort.

This seems to me to be a case of incomplete immersion, or perhaps over-augmentation; either way Venkman appears to have lost sight of the boundary between the virtual world and the real. The role of “Venkman” has become so important to his self-image that he is unable to see the Herald‘s story for what it is –¬† a chance to build on the mythology he has already established, an opportunity he should welcome – and instead regards it as a threat to his real-life identity, one which must be countered with a real-life action, regardless of the fact that such action risks destroying his existence, both virtual and real.

The story reminds me of cases we’ve covered before – the tale of another virtual superhero, Twixt, and the Stroker v. Linden lawsuit. Both of these involved people acting in ways that made no sense when seen in the context of the virtual world alone, but became more comprehensible when one thought about the interaction between virtual and real identities, particularly the unconscious aspects of the latter.

Is it possible to be a complete immersionist, to live one’s virtual life in total isolation from the conscious and unconscious influences of one’s everyday personality? Would such a thing be desirable? Probably not, for what is interesting to me about living a Second Life, and recording my thoughts about it, is the way that it casts light on corners of my consciousness that I may have been only vaguely aware of. While projection of real-life neuroses into the metaverse may be illuminating, I’m much less convinced that allowing in-world dynamics to leak out and influence one’s external behaviour can be anything other than harmful. This may be a lesson that Kalel Venkman, or at least his mortal alter-ego, is about to learn the hard way.

Because when justice is gone, there’s always force.